Keith Elliott At Large / Volleyball: Thinker with the touch of winning stardust: An inspirational, much-travelled Haitian coach has ensured Britain's volleyball team is no longer a bad joke

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The Independent Online
I am about to meet one of volleyball's giants. He has influenced the sport wherever he has dropped his sports bag, from California to Paris, from New York to Sweden, and he is now working wonders with the British team. His books and videos are classics. He speaks at seminars and symposia all over the world. His very name, Ralph Hippolyte, has a heroic ring of mighty deeds and games won single-handedly. To add to this exotic aura, he is Haitian.

All of which goes to show that you should never make assumptions. I was expecting an interview from Hell with a mix of Shaq O'Neil, Linford Christie and Ian Botham, a scowling giant with a brain in inverse proportion to his size, and conversation comprising monosyllables and volleyball cliches.

Instead I got a sub-six-footer so chubby that he looks as if he's hiding a volleyball under his ample sweater, who'll talk eruditely about the sport but prefers to look at it in philosophical terms. You don't expect a volleyball coach to spout Johnson and Stravinsky, or argue obscure concepts on time: is it continuous or linear?

But maybe that's one of the secrets of this amiable man: the ability to absorb information from a variety of sources and use it to advantage. His tiny room at the British Volleyball Association in Nottingham is packed with videos and books. 'I've read them all,' he says in an accent that hints at his international past: a shrug of French, a twinge of American, even a bit of Brit.

Hippolyte went from Haiti to California aged 16, and won a college volleyball scholarship. He was reading history and set to become a teacher.

But he was in the right place when Pennsylvania University sacked their volleyball coach. He took the job, liked it and he's been coaching ever since. He spent nearly three years in Sweden coaching the men's national squad and Nykoping, a club side that won promotion every year. He ran the French women's team for seven years, turning an average side into one of the world's best.

Wherever he has been, the stardust he scatters has turned fair teams into good ones, good ones into exceptional sides. And the case of the British squad, he has transformed a bunch of no-hopers into a unit that has twice beaten France, one of the world's top nations, in the past 12 months.

The national director, George Bulman, said: 'We heard on the grapevine that Ralph was nearing the end of his contract with the French, and got in there first. I still can't quite believe we got him. He is inspirational.'

When Hippolyte moved here in 1990, the English team were about as good as the Turkish Eurovision Song Contest entry. He was given a free hand to change things. Now two of the side are professional and more are in the pipeline. There is a coaching structure and national squads for juniors, cadets and seniors. Things are looking so good that sporting goods company, Rucanor, is sponsoring the team for two years.

Those victories over France (who sacked their technical director as a result) were no fluke. In Gateshead on Sunday, England have a realistic chance of beating Portugal in the European Championships. It won't be easy.

The Portuguese are all professionals. But Hippolyte's presence is like a seventh man on your side of the net.

A clue to Hippolyte's approach sits prominently on his desk. It is a hugely detailed computer-generated analysis - graphs, flowcharts, line diagrams looking like a millipede group sex orgy - of the Portuguese playing style.

Even in volleyball, technology is scoring.

The game is changing in other ways. To make it more attractive for television, revolutionary moves are afoot that will allow teams to score off every play. Just last month, a rule was passed allowing the ball to be played with the foot as well. Hippolyte says this will not mean an influx of ball-juggling footballers. 'You've got much better control with your hands.

Playing the ball with your feet is a 1 per cent occurrence. The change doesn't significantly affect our training.'

That's Hippolyte. Seen it, analysed it, discarded it. With so much to do and so little time (the squad didn't get together until last night) his main concern for this weekend is how much of the edited videos, game plans and data to burden them with. Rocking back dangerously in a non-rocking chair, he talks a lot about logistics. This is an American buzzword that really means time and money.

'We still don't have the logistics to compete. We need the whole team for daily practice but it's not possible because they come from all over the country and most have to work. It's something nowhere else in Europe has to worry about.' Sounds like a coach preparing his excuses for defeat? Not Hippolyte. 'By Saturday night the team will know what they have to do to win. Everybody that plays us has a huge fear. They are playing a bunch of amateurs with no reputation. We'll exploit that.'

Long-term, his contract expires in 1997. He's not even thinking about the Atlanta Olympics. 'Sydney maybe, if the young players come through.' Once that would have been a ridiculous dream. But English volleyball is no longer a joke. 'Nobody can say we're a disgrace any more.'

(Photograph omitted)